With all the talk about ending the school-to-prison pipeline, many people may be surprised to learn that California still, in the year 2014, allows kids to be locked up for not going to school. On its face, state law prohibits this, but court decisions have created a loophole that allows incarceration when truants are deemed to be in contempt based on their truancy. Although a majority of California counties do not use this practice, a few persist in locking up truants. Senate Bill 1296 — the Decriminalization of Truancy Act, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, would close the loophole. It deserves widespread support.
The loophole stems from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which originally prohibited the incarceration of “status offenders” — including truants, runaways and incorrigible youth — because Congress didn’t want youth who had committed no crime to be treated like criminals. Unfortunately, the law was later amended to allow confinement if the young person continued to violate court orders. A few California courts have used that amendment to justify locking up truants.
Over the past decade, there has been increasing opposition to the needless incarceration of truants through loopholes in state law. Fourteen states have changed their laws already, and elimination of the federal exception has been a central part of efforts to reauthorize the law. Most recently, U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas of Los Angeles has introduced the Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act aimed at eliminating the exception once and for all.
There are good reasons to support these efforts. The young people who wind up in juvenile court for truancy often have serious problems that are only made worse by incarceration. Youth who experience incarceration are less likely to complete their education and more likely to experience problems in becoming employed. This should not come as a surprise. Every day a young person is incarcerated is another day they are not in school. And while state law requires truants to be separated from delinquent youth, their treatment is virtually indistinguishable from the treatment of youth who have committed a crime. Many are held in what amounts to solitary confinement. This is literally the school-to-prison pipeline.
Many young people don’t go to school because of family responsibilities — taking care of sick relatives or younger siblings, or working to help support the family. Some come from chaotic or abusive family situations in which children’s educational needs are sidelined. Significant numbers of chronic truants have disabilities that make school difficult and frustrating, and many more have experienced educational disruptions that have left them far behind their classmates. Still other youth lack transportation, are afraid to go to school because it requires traveling through rival gang territory, or avoid school because of bullying or harassment. Most of the young people we see are youth of color, from families with limited financial resources.
While holding youth accountable is important, it must be done in a way that does not harm them, endanger their normal development and increase the odds of future delinquent behavior. More importantly, we must not lose sight of our ultimate goal in helping youth to complete their education. Accordingly, we now recognize that the use of incarceration for truants is ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Here in Los Angeles, where I preside, we have created a School Attendance Task Force to work with schools, students, their families, law enforcement, courts and others to develop appropriate ways to deal with school attendance issues. Our goal is to keep more young people in school and out of our courts by utilizing positive rather than punitive approaches.
Senate Bill 1296 will close the loophole that allows incarceration and restore the longstanding prohibition on locking up truant youth who have not committed other crimes. The Bill has been approved by the California State Senate and is on its way to the State Assembly; it is worthy of broad support.
Judge Michael Nash is the Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court and Past President of the National Council of Family and Juvenile Court Judges. SB 1296 is co-sponsored by the Youth Law Center and the East Bay Children’s Law Offices.